Tuesday, January 15, 2013

How to go vegan

Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times's "Well" blog has put up a nice post titled "How to Go Vegan."  She interviewed my favorite vegan blogger, Susan Voisin, and the post has generated a lot of great comments.  In fact, some of the comments are better than the original post.  It's worth a read, and it inspired me to come up with my own list of "how to go vegan" tips.

  • Do it for the animals.  Lately it seems like a lot of people are adopting vegan diets, or veganish ones, for their health.  A vegan diet can certainly make you healthier -- it's done that for me -- but from my perspective, that's more of a side effect than the main goal.  My personal experience is that if I'm trying to make a dietary change for my own health, I'm much less likely to stick with it than I am if I'm doing it for ethical reasons.  Read about factory farming.  Check out the pictures and videos Compassion Over Killing has taken at farms and slaughterhouses.    Watch "Meet Your Meat."  I know, I know, PeTA, but they really have done some good work here.  Visit a farmed animal sanctuary, get to know the animals, and hear their stories.   Your mileage may vary, but my own experience has been that even after a significant health scare (or series of scares), compassion for other creatures is a much stronger motivator than fear for my own well-being.
  • Don't neglect umami.  Umami, the "savory" taste, is one of the things people miss most about meat and cheese.  Seeking out vegan sources of umami -- miso, tomatoes, nutritional yeast, mushrooms -- will help make your meals yummy and satisfying without animal products. 
  • Skip the substitutes, at least in the beginning.  Commercially available vegan substitutes for meat and  dairy tend to be highly processed, full of salt and fat, expensive, and not very satisfying.  Especially in the beginning, they will seem like very feeble substitutes for the real thing.  Daiya cheese, probably the best vegan cheese widely available in the U.S., may satisfy your Velveeta jones, but it won't take the place of  a good aged cheese, and if you expect it to you will just be disappointed.  On the other hand, six months after you last tasted "real" ice cream, a bowl of So Delicious coconut milk ice cream -- especially the Turtle Tracks flavor, OMG -- will really hit the spot (so much so, that I can't eat it any more). 
  • Expand your culinary horizons.  Take this opportunity to learn new ways to plan a meal, and explore new tastes.  If you don't cook now, learn (or you can be one of the laziest vegans in the world, but I don't recommend this).  There are a zillion vegan recipe sites on the Web -- Fat Free Vegan and the Post Punk Kitchen are two of my favorites -- and many of the recipes are quick and easy.  Explore cuisines that have a strong tradition of meat-free cooking.  Asia is now your favorite continent.
  • Learn to love beans.  Cheap, high in protein, high in fiber, low in fat, and very satisfying -- beans are the word.  Beans are how you get protein-rich satisfaction without relying too heavily on soy products and fake stuff.  There are so many varieties, you could eat a different bean every day for weeks. Dry beans are cheaper than canned and, in my opinion, healthier and tastier (and there's a much greater variety available), but canned beans are also very good and with canned beans, you don't have to plan ahead to have a great meal ready when you want it.  I eat beans at pretty much every meal.  Yes, including breakfast.  Baked beans on toast are a traditional part of an English breakfast, but it's also worthwhile to expand your concept of what constitutes appropriate breakfast food.  There's no law that says you can't eat the same things for breakfast you eat for lunch and dinner, and in my opinion "lunch and dinner" foods can be a much more appropriate way to start the day than the sugary crap so many people eat for breakfast.
  • Abstinence is easier than moderation.  Again, your mileage may vary, but this is my experience.  If you keep eating animal products "once in a while," you won't lose your taste for them, nor will you really learn how to thrive without them.   Just quit.  When it gets hard, watch Earthlings.
I do have a criticism of the Times post.  It focuses completely on food, and there's a lot more to being vegan than that.  Finding nice winter clothes and shoes that don't contain animal products can be a challenge, and you may need to start shopping for cleaning products and personal care stuff at the health food store to find things that aren't tested on animals (or made by a parent company that tests on animals).  Shoes, sweaters, and lip balm have been the toughest ones for me, but it's all doable, and there are a lot more choices now than there were even a few years ago.  It's not that hard.  And it's worth it.  

What are your best tips for new and aspiring vegans? 

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